Friday, December 23, 2005
SEATTLE For Microsoft Corp., 2005 was the year the big bad Web came calling. Again.
A decade after Microsoft counterattacked to beat Netscape in the browser wars, the company finds itself surrounded yet again by competitors looking to leverage the Internet to gain an edge over the industry titan.
CalendarHub, left, a Web-based calendar program, and OpenOffice, right, a free suite of software, offer many of the services found in Microsoft Office. For some users, these alternatives will complement, not replace, their Microsoft software.
Web-based software and services are emerging for everything from checking e-mail to collaborating on business tasks.
Microsoft's concern is twofold: The paid services are convenient and easy to update, potentially offering an edge over Microsoft's Office and other desktop applications. And the free services are, well, free; advertising often supports them.
For now at least, Microsoft says it doesn't see these alternatives as a major threat, regarding them mainly as complementary to Office. Yet Microsoft recently launched its own push toward offering more Web-based software and services.
How scared should Microsoft be? To get a sense, I spent a week relying as much as possible on free software and services, available via the Internet, for everyday business tasks.
Although I sought to use the free alternatives whenever I could, I allowed exceptions when it would seriously interfere with my job. I continued to use The Associated Press' writing and editing program. I also often had to use Microsoft Outlook because I depend on e-mail for my job, and Outlook is tightly tied to the Microsoft Exchange e-mail server that AP uses.
I began by looking for a viable word processing alternative to Microsoft Word.
OpenOffice's Writer is a close replica, right down to the annoying tendency to "help" you when no help is needed. Writer tried to finish words I was typing. It also flashed a light bulb in the corner of the screen its version of Word's much-derided Mr. Clippy.
Easy to load
Still, the free OpenOffice suite, which includes database, spreadsheet and other applications, was easy to download with a broadband connection.
And once I had Writer on my machine, I didn't miss Microsoft Word. Many commands were the same, and I was able to easily open Word documents using Writer. The program also makes it extremely easy to save documents in the PDF format, something Microsoft plans to offer only with the version of Office due in 2006.
Web-based word processing programs promise the further convenience of allowing the user to access documents on any computer and collaborate over the Internet with others.
One product, Writely, was easy to set up, and it was simple to create and store documents. It was a breeze to import Word documents on my hard drive and relatively simple to save Writely documents in Word or OpenOffice.
My only beef was that I couldn't save documents as PDFs, but a spokeswoman said there are plans to fix that.
A competitor called gOffice offered more sophisticated formatting options, and it was easy to print documents as PDFs. I had difficulty setting up a gOffice account, and I found the process of saving and accessing files needlessly cumbersome.
As a reporter, I spend much of my day looking up sources' phone numbers and e-mail addresses, so it was essential that I find a good place to import, store and access my contact list.
OpenOffice's database program, Base, imported my contact list from Microsoft Outlook quickly and elegantly but did not give me the option of saving the data into the file format needed to transfer it to most other applications. Another OpenOffice program, Calc, let me save the data in the right format but took more time to tweak the data so it would import correctly.
I tested several programs for storing my contacts and liked Gmail, Google Inc.'s e-mail program, best. It offered simple instructions and imported my data with no problems. Plus, it was easy to search the contacts.
Tons of Web-based calendar programs let you upload your desktop-bound digital calendar or synchronize it with your existing program.
Yahoo Inc.'s application required that I uninstall other syncing software, so I didn't use that. I also found Yahoo's system for adding new items to be onerous; each entry requires the user to fill out a long form.
My favorite was CalendarHub, which imported four years worth of data into a pleasing interface and offered e-mail reminders of events.
Although my company's server software settings made it hard to use other e-mail clients, I did work some with Mozilla's Thunderbird and found it to be a functional alternative to Outlook. The interface was familiar, and it was easy to set up and to import old e-mails.
In the end, it came down to the question of what was worth more: my time or my money. Though it was technically possible to do most of my daily work without using Microsoft Office, it took considerably more time.
Although it is nice in theory to be able to access data online, in practice it often took longer to log on to different applications every time I needed something.
Perhaps my biggest concern was about privacy once I began entrusting my calendar, contacts and other information to Web-based systems instead of my own hard drive and my company's secure network.
I scoured each product's privacy statement and didn't use some that I felt were too vague on protections. But I still couldn't shake the nagging feeling that my data was now in too many companies' hands.
And I wondered whether I should store such valuable work data on systems that could crash or go out of business.
I found some benefits to having my work available on Web-based systems, and there are some I will probably use again.
But, for now at least, Microsoft is right: These challengers will complement, not replace, my Microsoft Office software.